The World AIDS Day That Almost, But Didn’t, Break Me

December 13, Day 500

My phone’s alarm clock goes off at 4 am. I think I slept for like, 2 minutes.

Get up and walk over to Bontle’s bed and shake her awake.

Gather my things and walk down to the bathroom. This is the same very dirty bathroom from last week that was covered in dirt and bugs and had the broken toilet. I don’t mind using it since it has a nice, cold shower.

Take a shower and get cooled off.

Walk back to the classroom and I find Bontle knocking gently on the classroom door where Mabe is sleeping. He has not responded and we can hear him snoring in there.

I pound on the door loudly.

“Mabe my friend. It’s time to wake up. I’m sorry to bother you but we have to be at the Kgotla at 5 am and it’s already 4:30 am,” I say.

We hear him sneezing up a storm and waking up.

“Yes, I am coming. I’m awake,” he says.

Bontle says the bathroom is too dirty for her to bath*. Yesterday, a man in the village told her that she could bath at his house if needed. So, she gathers her things and walks over to his house to use his bathroom.

I get dressed and she returns a few minutes later, freshly bathed. Apparently the man was still sleeping, so she opened his door, went into his house and took a bath in his bathroom and then left.

This is mind blowing to me that anyone would walk into a strange man’s house and use his bathroom while he’s sleeping. But hey, I guess she got the job done!

Catherine recommended I bring my traditional African dress to wear for today. My plan is to wear normal clothing to help set up for the event and then run back before it starts and put on my traditional dress.

Bontle and I walk down to the Kgotla and nothing has been done. No one is there.

Great.

Mabe shows up and I sit down with Bontle and we pin together 150 AIDS Day ribbons for everyone to wear. Soon, the women of the village show up and start to decorate the Kgotla in colorful cloths and hand made crafts. It looks beautiful.

I remember that I forgot to have coffee this morning, and we all know I get without coffee. I ask Mabe where I can get some boiling water, and he points to the pots brewing over the fire.

“Dumela, Mma. O tsogile jang? Ke kopa metsi,” I tell the woman standing at the pot. Everyone is standing around eating loaves of bread and drinking coffee (hello, mma. How are you this morning? I would like some water).

“Dumela, ke tsogile sentle. Ehh Mma, ke na le metsi,” she replies, handing me a mug of hot water. (hello Mma, I am well. Yes, I have water).

Sip my coffee and it’s heaven. Rush back to the kgotla. Mabe asks where the programs are for today, and I tell him we can’t use them because they have someone else’s name on them as the keynote speaker.

“No! We must have a program! Take a pen and fix the program. We must fix it,” he says.

I find a pen and sit and rewrite my name on every program for about an hour.

Soon, people begin to arrive for the day. Bontle and I rush back to the classroom to change into our formal clothes for the ceremony. Man, I feel like they’re going to be disappointed when they learn that I am the keynote speaker and not some big celebrity. But hey, we gotta roll with the punches!

Rush back to the kgotla, and I run into Baitshepi from BOCAIP, my soon-to-be counterpart. I help her set up some flags outside for people to know she’s inside testing for HIV.

“Abigail, you have entered the kgotla from the wrong entrance. Women are supposed to enter on the other side,” she informs me. Oh! Whoops! I didn’t realize men and women have separate entrances. I’m grateful for her telling me.

I see Wakgotla and a few other people and greet them. So amazing that they came all this way today!

Go inside the kgotla and I ask some of the women where I should sit. Usually, the keynote speaker has a special seat in the front. They shrug at me and tell me they don’t know, so I sit on the side with Bontle.

“Abbie, you are supposed to sit at the head table!” Baitshepi tells me. She asks a few people to move over, and I am seated between the Village Chief and the local councilman.

The program begins. There’s lots of singing, and lots of talking. The churches were supposed to show up and provide entertainment, but did not. So, Mabe devises a special clap and stomp for everyone to do when we need some entertainment. It’s pretty entertaining.

I look behind the audience seated and can see the kitchen area outside. I see many people in the village walking away from the kitchen with grocery bags filled with the food we brought. “Are they going grocery shopping from the food we brought to feed people for this event?” I wonder to myself.

My name is announced, and it’s show time. I get up, give the speech Catherine and I wrote the other day.

Phew, I survived!

Sit back down. Sing, talk, sing, talk, clap, stomp.

A few hours later, the event has ended.

I walk around and take pictures of everyone in the village. They are all excited and asking for pictures.

Run back to the classroom and change out of the dress and back into casual clothing. As I arrive back at the Kgotla, Mabe tells me that he is going to cross the border to South Africa with Mr. Kole and see what’s on the other side.

“Ohhhh, can I come? I want to see!” I say. I brought my passport with me for this reason and told the Peace Corps before this event that I may need to cross the border and received permission. Mabe says I should eat lunch first and then we will go.

I realize looking at the table of food that most of the food we brought was not served, but I don’t think anything of it. I have some rice and butternut and it’s delicious.

We all pile into Mr. Kole’s car and approach the border post, less than a mile away. The woman working in Immigration recognizes me from the World AIDS Day event and is excited I’m there. She says she liked my dress and I thank her.

We cross the Botswana border and then go through immigration in South Africa.

Then, we are in South Africa.

And you know what? It looks almost exactly the same as Botswana.

There are some government houses set up in South Africa and people live very close together in them. We drive around looking at the houses and decide to stop at a General Dealer.

Mabe buys a watermelon and a frozen treat for Bontle and I and some soda for us all to share. Bontle says she grew up eating Han-Tar and it’s better than Cool Time. We sit in the car and enjoy our treats for a few minutes. This Han Tar is WAY better than Cool Time. I didn’t think that was possible!

Bontle didn’t have time to eat before we left for SA, so she brought a plate of goat, samp, rice and butternut with her. The car now smells like goat, soda and sweets.

And then we drive back over the border to Botswana.

When we arrive back, most people have left but didn’t clean up or take the tent down. It’s VERY hot outside and I’m roasting in the sun waiting for Mabe to finish what we need to finish so we can go home.

“Mabe, you told me you wanted to be finished by 11 am. It’s now 1 pm. I’m reminding you that you wanted to go home right now. How about we rally and clean up and get the heck back home?” I say.

He agrees. As the two of us work to take down the gigantic tent, one of the women working in the kitchen complains to Mabe that we didn’t bring enough food for the village. She says they don’t have enough leftovers for everyone. She asks that after we finish cleaning up, we have a meeting with her so she can show us just how unacceptable the amount of food left over there is.

In my mind, if you have a leftover that means that you brought TOO MUCH food. It means there was enough food for everyone. But I keep my mouth shut and let him handle it.

We all gather once again in the kgotla. My face is bright red from the sun and from working hard taking down the tent and carrying chairs to the truck for Banda to deliver.

“Abbie, your face is bright red! You have had too much sun. You will overheat. You must sit down and rest,” Bontle says.

“Yes, my face turns red when I am hot. This is normal, I’ll be okay,” I say, but listen to her and sit down.

The woman complaining about the food returns once again and presents various plates of food. From what I can gather, she is saying we should have slaughtered a cow for the village and fed everyone.

I can’t understand clearly what Mabe is saying back to her, but I hear him say that she should be more focused on the message of the day about HIV/AIDS than worrying about free food, and he hopes that the village finds some gratefulness in their hearts to appreciate what we’ve done for them.

Finally, we pack up our things and get in the truck to drive home. As we pull away from the village, I see people taking bags of unopened food that we brought and loading it into trucks to take it home. And I don’t mean a loaf of bread here or there, I mean I see unopened 5 kg bags of maize meal and samp that were supposed to be served today going into the back of someone’s truck to take it home.

If I were to guess, our office just paid for the Christmas dinner meals for several families in the village.

Clearly they have taken advantage of us and still had the nerve to complain we didn’t bring enough food. Oh well, it’s not my battle to fight. Hopefully they will eat well and it is a much needed meal we provided.

Back on the bumpy road, we pick up a family hitchhiking to Werda and drop them off. Stop at the fueling station and get diesel for the truck.

I fall asleep once again in the car and wake up 30 minutes later.

Arrive home, and immediately the smell hits me. There is another pool of chicken blood under my refrigerator that smells terrible leftover from a few days ago.

I throw everything out in my refrigerator and clean it with bleach, and wash the floor with bleach.

It still smells like a dead body in here, but I’ll survive.

Now I can turn into a vegetable. I sigh a big sigh of relief. We did it! We really pulled it off! We survived driving through the farms, goats attacking my tent, chicken blood in the kitchen, social isolation, football tournaments, bathing in stranger’s houses, and now World AIDS Day. What a month.

At times I thought all of these new experiences outside of my comfort zone would overwhelm me and I would break. But I didn’t.

One thing I have learned from my service is that at some point you have to stop trying to control things and worry about what you don’t have, and just roll with what you do have and make it work. You won’t break, because you’re whole and complete to begin with and have all the tools you need to make things work.

Like they say, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

This is life.

Change into sweats, take a shower and plant myself on the couch. Watch movies and unwind for the rest of the day.

Boroko 🌙

*I’m not using the phrase “bath” wrong and I’m not misspelling the word “bathe”. Here, we say bath instead of bathe.

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